Next Rockford: My Unsuccessful Breakup with Rockford

What happens when a young professional learns to embrace their hometown, rather than flee it for the big city? Rebecca Nunes, of Next Rockford, explains why it’s essential to engage young people in the life of our region.

One day at lunch, a fellow Next Rockford member and I chatted about the value each of us has found in the organization. We discussed the usual “I was introduced to so-and-so” and “it was great to learn about such-and-such,” but what resonated the most for me was when he added, “I think it’s a retention tool for Rockford.”
That statement stuck with me. I realized that my decision to stay here in Rockford coincided with my increased involvement in the community, starting with Next Rockford.
Like many new college grads, I returned home to Rockford with the intention of getting that pesky “entry level position” out of the way, paying off student loans and then making my great escape to the shiny big city – Chicago.
Five years later I’m still here and it’s exactly where I want to be. Looking back, I refer to that period of time as my “unsuccessful breakup” with Rockford. As a 21-year-old right out of college, my relationship with my hometown wasn’t what I needed it to be. I desperately missed being surrounded by people my own age. Although I never felt like there was a shortage of things to do, I did feel there was a shortage of peers with whom to do them. And I lacked a sense of purpose. I was ready to break up with Rockford and start a new relationship with the big city.
What changed my mind? The revelation that all relationships take work and it was up to me to do that work. My younger self wanted to have a perfect relationship with Rockford instantly. But here’s the thing: a good relationship with Rockford, or any community, no matter its size, requires effort. And it’s well worth it. All of the best relationships in life require an investment of time and energy, but they also make life worth living.
Once I left my comfort zone behind and made an effort to get involved, Rockford and I worked out our differences very quickly. Next Rockford opened my eyes to all sorts of amazing people and organizations. I began spending more time with people who proudly wear a passion for Rockford on their sleeves and I discovered their excitement is contagious.
In 2015, I was asked to join the strategy team for Next Rockford. I was given an opportunity to be educated, to be heard and to feel valued by this community. In the years following, I began volunteering for CASA and joined both the YMCA Youth Achievement Advisory Council and the Rockford River District Association board. Last year, I graduated from the Rockford Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Rockford program, where I met more wonderful local people.
During the past five years, I’ve watched the number of involved young local professionals grow. I’ve also witnessed various reactions to them. I think we need to stop acting surprised when a “boomeranger” moves back here, as if that decision shows questionable judgment or lack of ambition. Instead, we need say “Good for you! How can I help you get more involved? Rockford is happy to have you.” We need to show interest in their lives and do our best to retain them right here, right now.
Whether or not you fit the bill to join Next Rockford, you probably know young adults who do. Maybe you’ve already put in your time and built your own network of contacts and it’s time to help others do the same. Our young people bring fresh talents to our community and need to feel valued. Need to feel heard. And need to feel like they can make a difference – because they can.
I’ve been fortunate to work for community-minded employers who’ve encouraged my civic engagement, so I offer this advice to business owners: sit down with the young people in your organization. Ask them how they’re involved in the community. Point them in the direction of Next Rockford. Sign them up for the Rockford Chamber of Commerce Leadership Rockford program. Invite them to attend a civic committee or service organization meeting.
The more we invest ourselves in our home, the better we understand it and the harder it is to walk away from it.
Helping our young professionals to grow deeper roots in Rockford benefits them, benefits employers, benefits civic and charitable organizations and ultimately benefits the entire community. Be the friendly face that encourages a young person to get involved.
Rebecca Nunes is the marketing coordinator at Stentstrom Companies and a Next Rockford strategy team member. Learn more at